Product News

Donna Humanizes the Smart Personal Assistant App

Published on April 11, 2013
by Liz Gannes

“You have to leave now to get to your next meeting,” says Donna, the new iPhone personal assistant app, via push notification. Donna pulls up a map with directions already displayed from your current location, a street-view picture of the meeting venue and the current weather at that venue.

Donna2Donna is a nicely designed — though narrowly useful — app that manages a busy person’s day. It sends an alert each evening with the next day’s agenda, proactively notifies when it’s going to rain during an upcoming meeting and dials directly into conference calls.

Actually, not “it” — Donna, the app, is explicitly a “she.”

Though the app name seems a bit anachronistically sexist, co-creator Kevin Cheng said it’s a specific reference to the “powerful character” Donna Moss, a.k.a. the assistant from “The West Wing” played by Janel Moloney.

And the fact that Donna has a personality is quite on purpose, said Cheng, a former product manager at Twitter and designer at Yahoo.

If you’re a person who pays close attention to these things, you might wonder what took Donna so long (Cheng’s Incredible Labs raised $2.5 million in funding early last year, and already employs 11 people), and also think: Wow, there are a lot of competitors out there (Tempo, Sunrise, Cue, Google Now, etc.).

But the reality is, smart personal assistants are just starting to emerge now, after Apple’s kinda-smart voice app Siri.

“The space is validated by lots of players, but also nobody has validated it because there’s no breakout yet,” Cheng said. He added, “But to go mainstream, you have to be more than just the best technology.”

Thus, Donna has been created with equal importance for data and design — note the friendly cursive font and the neat rotating menu to choose your transportation mode. It is aimed to be very good at proactively doing a very few things for its users.

This isn’t an app that will replace your existing iPhone calendar. It’s an added assistant that rides on top of information in other apps. Some users will never open the app, only use the push notifications, but even so, Donna will improve its estimates by tracking a user’s habits (driving versus biking versus walking, home and work locations).

Incredible Labs — whose backers include Khosla Ventures, Betaworks, CrunchFund, Maynard Webb and Ashton Kutcher — isn’t making Donna publicly available today, but rather taking signups for app beta testers (something Apple usually frowns on, but we’ll see), with a broader release planned in the coming months.

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